U.S. Navy Leads Rescue of 40 From Gulf Tanker Attacked by Iranians

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. Navy destroyer helped rescue 40 people from a Cypriot-registered supertanker that caught fire Saturday in the Persian Gulf after being attacked by an Iranian warship.

Officials said that it was the first time U.S. Navy personnel had undertaken a major rescue operation since being on station in the Persian Gulf, where a 12-ship task force is currently providing escorts to Kuwaiti oil tankers transiting the waterway.

The Navy ship, the destroyer Chandler, was assisted in the rescue by a helicopter under charter to CBS television correspondents.

There were no injuries in the assault on the 232,164-ton tanker Pivot, which was attacked by an Iranian frigate firing rockets. The tanker was transporting a load of oil from the Saudi Arabian port of Ras Tanura, and the vessel was swept by flames when the rockets hit. The crew and others aboard huddled in the tanker's bow, from where they were rescued.

According to officials aboard the flagship La Salle of the U.S. Mideast Force, the Chandler quickly responded when the Pivot requested aid on maritime radio.

The Navy ship rendered "humanitarian assistance" and did not attempt to engage the Iranian attackers, according to the U.S. officials. The assistance was in line with the rules of engagement for Navy ships in the gulf, they said.

With the help of the CBS helicopter and the Chandler's own helicopters, the 40 crew members aboard the burning tanker were lifted off and then transferred to a tugboat, which took them to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Among those rescued was the pregnant wife of a Greek officer.

The fire was extinguished after five hours, and the Pivot will be towed to Dubai.

The Greek captain, Alexander Kontogiorgos, told CBS News that the Iranians had intercepted his ship, asked him to identify his cargo, then allowed him to continue and even wished him "bon voyage." But "after five minutes," he said, "bang, bang, bang; they attacked."

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